Note to readers: This story contains graphic description of a sexual assault.
Between original reporting by the Bohemian published today and Saturday’s San Francisco Chronicle article, more than a dozen people have alleged that acclaimed Sebastopol restaurateur Lowell Sheldon created a toxic work environment and sexually harassed people on the job and outside of work.
The Bohemian began interviewing women about their experiences with Sheldon in April of this year, just after Leah Engel shared on social media that her experiences with Sheldon were why she was leaving her job with Handline and Fern Bar.
In total, we spoke with 12 individuals about their personal experiences with Sheldon, plus several individuals who corroborated their stories. In August, the Bohemian connected with a woman who met Sheldon on the dating app Tinder in 2019.
In November 2019, she had dinner with Sheldon at his house. As they dined, he allegedly told her there was a sexual harassment investigation about him happening at Fern Bar and said he was doing a lot of personal work to understand consent. Later that night, she says he sexually assaulted her.
The woman says that she filed a police report on Monday, Sept. 27, with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. The Bohemian will refer to her as Jane Doe to honor her request for anonymity out of concern for her community relations. We spoke to Doe and Heather Wise, a local attorney who accompanied her to file the report on Monday.
Doe says she met Sheldon on Tinder when she and her then-husband opened their relationship, reaching an agreement that they could date other people. She says she bonded with Sheldon, who said he was also in an open relationship at the time.
Sheldon brought Doe to his Sebastopol restaurants for dates. She recalls that he could be charming but could also be harsh to his employees. Doe says on one early date at Fern Bar, Sheldon scolded an older bartender for describing a wine as sweet, questioning whether the man had tasted the wine.
“The man looked petrified. Seeing one of his employees get that look of terror on his face kind of freaked me out,” Doe says.
After a few dates, they had one consensual sexual encounter. Before the encounter, Doe was very clear about the specific sexual acts she was interested in having with him and which she was not. Doe says that Sheldon commented that he had never had a conversation like that before.
The two had a sexual encounter that night. Doe told the Bohemian, “Despite the fact that it was completely consensual and we had talked much more than maybe is common, I left with this feeling of, ‘That was gross, I don’t want to do that again.’”
She and Sheldon didn’t go on another date for a few months after that. Then, in November 2019, they reconnected, and Sheldon invited her to dinner. Doe says she expected that they would go out to a restaurant as they always had, but that as they firmed up the details, Sheldon invited her to dinner at his home.
Sheldon talked about the recent closure of Lowell’s, one of his Sebastopol restaurants. Doe says, “I asked him what he thought people would say working for him was like. He paused, then said that he thought that people would say that it was one of the more rewarding restaurant jobs that they had had because of [the way Lowell’s participated in] the farm-to-table movement.”
She continues, “He paused again, and then he shared that there had been a sexual harassment claim made against him by one of the managers at Fern Bar, and that there was an outside firm that had been hired to look into that. He said he was being asked to take a step back while that happens and that it was causing him to really reflect on his behavior at work and his understanding of consent in general.”
Doe says he seemed very self-reflective and remorseful, remarking that Sheldon shared that he “maybe had not fully understood the concept of consent before.”
Sheldon’s self-awareness and vulnerability early in the evening is what makes his actions later that night so shocking to Doe. She says that over dinner, Sheldon opened “multiple bottles of wine” for the two of them and filled her glass throughout the evening.
“I was aware that I had had more than the right amount of wine for me to have, and I didn’t really know how to navigate the rest of the evening in his house with him because I knew that I did not want to hook up with him. But I also don’t think that I felt clear enough to just say, like, ‘Hey, like I’m drunk and I need to take a cab home,’” Doe says.
Then, Doe remembered that a mutual friend was DJing at a local bar. She suggested they go, feeling glad that it was something that would get them out of the house together.
“I wasn’t feeling at that point like, ‘I’m afraid of this person,’ but I was feeling that I didn’t want to hang out alone with him,” she says.
At the bar, Sheldon offered her cocaine, suggesting that it might sober her up. They both did it together. At one point, a friend at the bar invited them over to their house. Doe and Sheldon decided they would go. She says he took her hand and led her to his car. In the car, she realized that they weren’t driving in the direction of the friend’s home.
“I asked him where we were going and he said, ‘We’re not going to any parties—we’re going to my house,’” Doe says. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s weird.’”
Back at the house, Doe says she sat on the couch and Sheldon brought her a glass of water. “And then he was next to me, and then he was kissing me. It was happening pretty fast. There isn’t a point where I said, ‘No, what are you doing?’ I was more just confused and moving my body away, still feeling quite drunk,” she says.
Doe then remembers that Sheldon got on top of her and put his hands in her pants. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m definitely not having sex with him.’” Doe says she sat up.
“When I sat up, he quickly was standing in front of me and his pants were unbuttoned. He put his penis in my mouth—like all the way down my throat—and almost immediately ejaculated,” Doe says.
Doe was surprised and confused, and remembers thinking, “Holy shit, he should not have done that and I don’t even know what to say about it right now.”
Doe says that Sheldon nonchalantly said he was going to watch a show and asked if she wanted to watch. She laid down and fell asleep for a while. When he went to bed, he asked if she wanted to come. Doe said she would feel better driving home, and did.
Doe lived with her then-husband at the time and told him what had happened with Sheldon that night. The Bohemian interviewed him to confirm what Doe shared with him. She said that, at the time, she felt disgusted and violated and thought Sheldon’s actions might be criminal.
Doe says that her then-husband told her, “It sounds like he raped you,” but she responded, “Well, I’m not gonna let him have that power over me, so I’m not going to think about it like that.”
On a phone call, Doe’s ex-husband separately described this conversation to The Bohemian.
In early 2020, Doe says she also disclosed to a more recent significant other that she once had a violating experience with Sheldon. This man also confirmed to the Bohemian that this conversation took place.
After the incident, Doe continued to share an overlapping social circle with Sheldon.
In April, when news broke of many women alleging that then-Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli sexually assaulted them, Doe says, “that was really triggering for me because there was a lot of stuff that was in that piece that I think I recognized in my experience with Lowell.”
On Monday, Sept. 27, Doe filed a police report about her experience with Sheldon. In California, the statute of limitation for forced oral copulation is 10 years if the survivor is over 18.
The Bohemian asked Sheldon, “Have you ever engaged sexually with anyone who did not consent to the activity? Have you ever engaged sexually with anyone who was seriously intoxicated?”
Sheldon told the Bohemian, “Every allegation you list or question you asked, beyond the comment I made to Jesse [Hom-Dawson], is either taken out of context, grossly misleading or completely false.”
Read about the way Sheldon created a toxic work environment here.
Got a tip? Chelsea Kurnick can be reached at [email protected].